d. Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton / USA / 60 mins.
Buster Keaton, much like silent comedy's mega-star Charles Chaplin, liked to improvise, and perhaps his most expensive improvisation was The Navigator, a film that had all of its pieces before it knew what to do with them. Keaton's art director, had informed him that a soon-to-be dismantled ocean liner had become available, and Keaton convinced producer Joseph M. Schenck to invest $20,000 into the ship to secure it for a film. Schenck did (although a bit begrudgingly, it's been reported). So after an enormous expenditure and with an entire ocean steam-liner at his disposal, Keaton sat down with his chief gagman, Clyde Bruckman, and finally asked the big question: What are we going to do with it?
The result turned out to be The Navigator, an artistic and cinematic success that went on to be the comedian's most profitable film at the time. The story he and his crew created does not stray too far from typical Keatonian narratives; he plays a well-to-do and pampered rich man named Rollo Treadway who is struck with the urge to be married one day, but the girl (Kathryn McGuire) for whom he pines, named Betsy O'Brien, rejects his proposal. Through a series of mishaps he and she both end up on the empty ship, which is sent out to sea and leaves both the pampered characters to fend for themselves — make their own food (a decision to use six coffee beans to make a gallon proves disastrous) and try to find safety (they scare off a ship that could have helped them when they send up the quarantine flag for attention because it's the brightest flag).
Social status and technology then recur as key sources of Keaton comedy, and both leads carry their weight equally and seem tortured equally by the uncaring mechanics of the ship. Mechanics aside, they're both haunted by what they assume are ghosts on board the ship, including a brilliant sequence where a photograph of a frightening man is tossed out by McGuire and lands on a hook above a porthole, swinging back and forth while Keaton is trying to sleep, as if a face keeps looking in on him. (I'll also give a shout-out to a particularly funny, if Chaplinesque, struggle with a deck chair and a moment where Keaton tries to shuffle a soggy deck of chairs.) Although McGuire appeared in only two of Keaton's films — this and Sherlock Jr. — she brings to the screen a comic poise that you rarely see silent comediennes exhibit. Rollo may have proposed to Betsy in the beginning of the film, and slowly builds up a camaraderie with her as they spent time abroad the ocean liner, but it would almost be incorrect to label her a romantic interest. She lacks the chance to exhibit the physical humor Keaton could conjure out of seemingly nothing (she may or may not have had any), but she undoubtedly serves much more as a comic partner in The Navigator.
Donald Crisp, who made regular appearances in D.W. Griffith's films and served as an uncredited assistant director on The Birth of a Nation, was brought in by Keaton to direct the "straight" scenes of The Navigator. The decision turned out to be a mistake as far as Keaton was concerned when the rather humorless Crisp began meddling in the film. Consequentially, Keaton re-shot everything and is generally regarded as the sole director of the film although Crisp's name remains on the credits.
Even though the film is completely Keaton's, and is a success by any measure, I'm not sure the social satire and the man-versus-machine humor is quite as effective here than in other Keaton features. Certainly it cannot be forgotten for an absolutely bravura sequence that appears toward the end. When the ship stalls out near an island of cannibals that pose a clear and obvious threat to the two socialites, Keaton must don a diving suit and go underwater to fix the ship's broken propeller. It's among the earliest underwear scenes in cinema, filmed at Lake Tahoe because the studio tanks were too small for a life-size propeller. Keaton finds nothing lacking in terms of underwater humor: he washes his hands although he's at the bottom of the sea, and he uses the local fauna to his advantage (a lobster's claws help cut wires and one swordfish comes in handle to fence with another swordfish).
Nearly all of Keaton's films made and released between 1920 and 1929 possess the miraculous quality of blending entertainment, humor, and cinematic skill, but The Navigator has its fair share of ardent defenders; Walter Kerr, in his seminal book The Silent Clowns, calls it "one of Keaton's two perfect films" (the other being The General). Without a doubt I think the film is very good, although it falls short of of masterpiece status. It's always struck me as Buster Keaton's most mechanical film, and not just because one of the "stars" is an retired ocean liner. As I've written before, one of Keaton's surest strengths as a director is delivering a tactile atmosphere through the mise-en-scène; you can almost hear the groans of the hull and smell the cold, wet metal. But the joy of a Keaton film is the journey to a faraway and comic place while being able to feel close to Keaton on screen. He's distant in The Navigator, and though the film as an entire production is marked with distinguishing Keaton characteristics, his lead performance isn't. It's a small gripe for an otherwise splendid film.
13 August 2009
d. Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton / USA / 60 mins.